Science and Tech


United Nations agrees on treaty to protect ocean life

After about 20 years of planning, U.N. members agreed to a treaty that will pave the way for protecting marine biodiversity in international waters.
Posted at 8:03 PM, Mar 06, 2023

More than 150 countries have agreed to a treaty that will offer the tools to protect animals and habitats in international waters.

Individual countries generally control the waters and sea floor extending 200 miles from their shores. Beyond that are international waters, also known as the high seas. The lawless expanse makes up about two thirds of the ocean and covers around half of the planet’s surface.

"The high seas are 95% of the available living space on Earth, so this is really a huge area," said Olive Heffernan, a marine biologist and science journalist.

“We haven't had the tools and mechanisms that we need to really effectively protect and conserve these places,” said Nichola Clark, an officer on the Ocean Governance Team at Pew Charitable Trusts.

This treaty addresses threats to marine biodiversity — like overfishing, climate change and deep-sea mining — that the UN has been discussing for around 20 years. Some international regulations have focused on those issues, but the protection of biodiversity hasn't been a priority.

Efforts to safeguard marine species, like whales and dolphins that make annual migrations crossing the high seas, have been difficult.

"There is a lot of destruction going on in the world's oceans: 90% of the big fish are gone. We know what's happened to the whales," said Charles Clover, executive director of the Blue Marine Foundation. "This is why we need to start urgently putting something back in the way of areas that humans cannot exploit."

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Under the treaty, there will be now legal tools and a global framework to help protect marine biodiversity, including the ability to create and manage marine protected areas.

"It's a very historic agreement, very exciting, and it will, for the first time, put in place a mechanism for creating these large marine sanctuaries in international waters — which is hugely important because right now, only 1% of the high seas is protected within a marine reserve, and we need to get to 30% by 2030," Heffernan said.

“That’s what this treaty offers, is a chance to do that, to really ensure that we are able to protect our full interconnected ecosystem on the oceans from coasts to high seas,” Clark said.

One example of an animal that could benefit is the leatherback sea turtle, according to Clark.

“I like to use an example of leatherback turtles: turtles that spend most of their life actually in the high seas and international waters, but they have to come back to shore to nest,” Clark said. “Protecting just their nesting areas on the coasts isn't enough. We actually have to protect them where they spend most of their lives."

So what’s next for the treaty?

Though the UN members have agreed to the final version of the treaty's text, they'll still have to do a couple things before it's up and running.

“They’ll have to do a quick legal scrub of the treaty text, they'll formally adopt it and then will start a campaign to ratify, so that’s where countries would actually sign up to formally agree to the new treaty," Clark said.

At least 60 countries need to sign the treaty at that point for it to pass, which is expected to take years. Even so, Greenpeace hails it as "the biggest conservation victory ever."

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